Critical Semiotic Analysis and Cultural Political Economy

This on-line version is the pre-copyedited, preprint version. The published version can be found here:

‘Critical semiotic analysis and cultural political economy‘, Critical Discourse Studies, 1 (2), 159-174, 2004. [1] 


Abstract: A case is made for ‘cultural political economy’ (CPE) by exploring the constitutive role of semiosis in economic and political activities, economic and political institutions, and social order more generally. CPE is a post-disciplinary approach that adopts the ‘cultural turn’ in economic and political inquiry without neglecting the articulation of semiosis with the interconnected materialities of economics and politics within wider social formations. This approach is illustrated from the emergence of the ‘Knowledge-Based Economy’ as a master discourse for accumulation strategies on different scales, for state projects and hegemonic visions, for diverse functional systems and professions, and for civil society.

Key words: Semiosis; critical discourse analysis; hegemony; post-Fordism; knowledge-based economy; cultural political economy; post-disciplinarity; evolution;


This article seeks to redirect the cultural turn(s) in economic and political investigation by making a case for ‘cultural political economy’ (hereafter CPE). This combines concepts and tools from critical semiotic analysis and from critical political economy to produce a distinctive post-disciplinary approach to capitalist social formations.[2] CPE differs from other cultural turns in part through its concern with the key mechanisms that determine the co-evolution of the semiotic and extra-semiotic aspects of political economy. These mechanisms are mediated through the general features of semiosis as well as the particular forms and institutional dynamics of capitalism. Combining these general and particular mediations prompts two lines of investigation. First, given the infinity of possible meaningful communications and (mis)understandings enabled by semiosis, how do extra-semiotic as well as semiotic factors affect the variation, selection, and retention of semiosis and its associated practices in ordering, reproducing and transforming capitalist social formations? And, second, given the contradictions, dilemmas, indeterminacy, and overall improbability of capitalist reproduction, especially during its recurrent crises, what role does semiosis play in construing, constructing, and temporarily stabilizing capitalist social formations? Before proceeding, I should note that analogous approaches could be developed for non-capitalist regimes by combining critical semiotic analysis with concepts suited to their respective economic forms and institutional dynamics.

In making a case for CPE, I first present some ontological, epistemological, and methodological claims about critical semiotic analysis and critical political economy together with some substantive claims about the role of semiotic practices in constructing as well as construing economic objects and subjects. A second set of arguments concerns the interaction of the semiotic and extra-semiotic in constituting and reproducing agency and structure. This approach is illustrated from the rise of the ‘knowledge-based economy’ (KBE) as a provisional, partial, and unstable semiotic-material solution to the crisis of Atlantic Fordism. This reveals how semiosis, especially in struggles over accumulation strategies, state projects, and hegemonic visions, contributes to the rise of functioning post-Fordist economies and, in turn, how material preconditions are involved in selecting and consolidating ‘KBE’ discourses. I conclude with some general remarks on CPE and cultural studies.

1. On Cultural Political Economy

Three features make CPE distinctive theoretically. First, along with other currents in evolutionary and institutional political economy and in contrast with generic studies on semiosis, CPE opposes transhistorical analyses, insisting that both history and institutions matter in economic and political dynamics. Second, in contrast with other currents in evolutionary and institutional political economy but in common with other variants of cultural materialism, it takes the cultural turn seriously, highlighting the complex relations between meanings and practices. And, third, as opposed to either tradition considered separately, it combines evolutionary and institutional political economy with the cultural turn. It explores these complex relations in terms of three generic evolutionary mechanisms: variation, selection, and retention (Campbell 1969). This is reflected in its concern with the co-evolution of semiotic and extra-semiotic processes and their conjoint impact in the constitution of capitalist social formations. This general approach can be re-stated in terms of four broad claims.

Ontologically, CPE claims that semiosis contributes to the overall constitution of specific social objects and social subjects and, a fortiori, to their co-constitution and co-evolution in wider ensembles of social relations. Orthodox political economy tends to naturalize or reify its theoretical objects (such as land, machines, the division of labour, money, commodities, the information economy) and to offer impoverished accounts of how subjects and subjectivities are formed and how different modes of calculation emerge, come to be institutionalized, and get modified. In contrast, CPE views technical and economic objects as socially constructed, historically specific, more or less socially (dis)embedded in broader networks of social relations and institutional ensembles, more or less embodied (‘incorporated’ and embrained), and in need of continuing social ‘repair’ work for their reproduction. Social construction involves material elements too, of course; but these can be articulated within limits in different ways through the intervention of semiotic practices. Analogous arguments apply to the state and politics (Jessop 1990, 2002; Mitchell 1991).

Epistemologically, CPE critiques the categories and methods typical of orthodox political economy and emphasizes the inevitable contextuality and historicity of the latter’s claims to knowledge. It rejects any universalistic, positivist account of reality, denies the facticity of the subject-object duality, allows for the co-constitution of subjects and objects, and eschews reductionist approaches to economic analysis. But it also stresses the materiality of social relations and highlights the constraints involved in processes that operate ‘behind the backs’ of the relevant agents. It is especially concerned with the structural properties and dynamics that result from such material interactions. It thereby escapes both the sociological imperialism of pure social constructionism and the voluntarist vacuity of certain lines of discourse analysis, which seem to imply that agents can will anything into existence in and through an appropriately articulated discourse. In short, CPE recognizes both the constitutive role of semiosis and the emergent extra-semiotic features of social relations and their conjoint impact on capacities for action and transformation.

Methodologically, CPE combines concepts and tools from critical semiotic analysis with those from critical political economy. The cultural turn includes approaches oriented to argumentation, narrativity, rhetoric, hermeneutics, identity, reflexivity, historicity, and discourse; here I use semiosis, i.e., the intersubjective production of meaning, to cover them all.[3] For they all assume that semiosis is causally efficacious as well as meaningful and that actual events and processes and their emergent effects can not only be interpreted but also explained, at least in part, in terms of semiosis. Thus CPE examines the role of semiosis and semiotic practices not only in the continual (re-)making of social relations but also in the contingent emergence, provisional consolidation, and ongoing realization of their extra-semiotic properties.

Still arguing methodologically, just as there are variants of the cultural turn, political economy also has different currents. My own approach to CPE draws mainly on the Marxist tradition. This examines the specificity of the basic forms, contradictions, crisis-tendencies, and dilemmas of the capitalism, their conditions of existence, and their potential impact on other social relations. However, in contrast to orthodox Marxism, which, like orthodox economics, tends to reify and essentialize the different moments of capital accumulation, treating them as objective forces, a Marxist-inspired CPE stresses their contingent and always tendential nature. For, if social phenomena are discursively constituted and never achieve a self-reproducing closure, isolated from other social phenomena, then any natural necessities (emergent properties) entailed in the internal relations of a given object must be tendential. Such properties would only be fully realized if that object were fully constituted and continually reproduced through appropriate discursive and social practices. This is inherently improbable: discursive relations are polysemic and heteroglossic, subjectivities are plural and changeable, and extra-semiotic properties are liable to material disturbances. For example, capitalist relations are always articulated with other production relations and are, at most, relatively dominant; moreover, their operation is always vulnerable to disruption through internal contradictions, the intrusion of relations anchored in other institutional orders and the lifeworld (civil society), and resistance rooted in conflicting interests, competing identities, and rival modes of calculation. The resulting threats to the formal and/or substantive unity of the capital relation mean that any tendencies inherent in capitalism are themselves tendential, i.e., depend on the continuing reproduction of the capital relation itself. Combined with critical political economy, critical semiotic analysis offers much in exploring this doubly tendential dynamic (cf. Jessop 2001).

Substantively, at what orthodox economics misleadingly describes as the macro-level, CPE distinguishes the ‘actually existing economy’ as the chaotic sum of all economic activities (broadly defined as concerned with the social appropriation and transformation of nature for the purposes of material provisioning)[4] from the ‘economy’ (or, better, ‘economies’ in the plural) as an imaginatively narrated, more or less coherent subset of these activities. The totality of economic activities is so unstructured and complex that it cannot be an object of calculation, management, governance, or guidance. Instead such practices are always oriented to subsets of economic relations (economic systems or subsystems) that have been discursively and, perhaps organizationally and institutionally, fixed as objects of intervention. This involves ‘economic imaginaries’ that rely on semiosis to constitute these subsets. Moreover, if they are to prove more than ‘arbitrary, rationalistic, and willed’ (Gramsci 1971: 376-7), these imaginaries must have some significant, albeit necessarily partial, correspondence to real material interdependencies in the actually existing economy and/or in relations between economic and extra-economic activities. These subsets are always selectively defined – due both to limited cognitive capacities and to the discursive and material biases of specific epistemes and economic paradigms. They typically exclude elements – usually unintentionally – that are vital to the overall performance of the subset of economic (and extra-economic) relations that have been identified. Such exclusions limit in turn the efficacy of economic forecasting, management, planning, guidance, governance, etc., because such practices do not (indeed, cannot) take account of excluded elements and their impact. Similar arguments would apply, with appropriate changes, to so-called meso- or micro-level economic phenomena, such as industrial districts or individual enterprises.

Imagined economies are discursively constituted and materially reproduced on many sites and scales, in different spatio-temporal contexts, and over various spatio-temporal horizons. They extend from one-off transactions through stable economic organizations, networks, and clusters to ‘macro-economic’ regimes. While massive scope for variation typically exists at an individual transactional level, the medium- to long-term semiotic and material reproduction requirements of meso-complexes and macro-economic regimes narrow this scope considerably. The recursive selection of semiotic practices and extra-semiotic processes at these scales tends to reduce inappropriate variation and to secure thereby the ‘requisite variety’ (constrained heterogeneity rather than simple uniformity) that supports the structural coherence of economic activities. Indeed stable semiotic orders, discursive selectivities, social learning, path-dependencies, power relations, patterned complementarities, and material selectivities all become more significant, the more that material interdependencies and/or issues of spatial and intertemporal articulation increase within and across diverse functional systems and the lifeworld. Yet this growing set of constraints also reveals the fragility and, indeed, improbability of the smooth reproduction of complex social orders. This highlights the importance of retaining an appropriate repertoire of semiotic and material resources and practices that can be flexibly and reflexively deployed in response to emerging disturbances and crises (cf. Grabher 1994; Jessop 2003).

Economic imaginaries at the meso- and macro-levels develop as economic, political, and intellectual forces seek to (re)define specific subsets of economic activities as subjects, sites, and stakes of competition and/or as objects of regulation and to articulate strategies, projects and visions oriented to these imagined economies. Among the main forces involved in such efforts are political parties, think tanks, bodies such as the OECD and World Bank, organized interests such as business associations and trade unions, and social movements; the mass media are also crucial intermediaries in mobilizing elite and/or popular support behind competing imaginaries.[5] These forces tend to manipulate power and knowledge to secure recognition of the boundaries, geometries, temporalities, typical economic agents, tendencies and counter-tendencies, distinctive overall dynamic, and reproduction requirements of different imagined economies (Daly 1991; Miller and Rose 1993). They also seek to develop new structural and organizational forms that will help to institutionalize these boundaries, geometries, and temporalities in an appropriate spatio-temporal fix that can displace and/or defer capital’s inherent contradictions and crisis-tendencies. However, by virtue of competing economic imaginaries, competing efforts to institute them materially, and an inevitable incompleteness in the specification of their respective economic and extra-economic preconditions, each ‘imagined economy’ is only ever partially constituted. There are always interstitial, residual, marginal, irrelevant, recalcitrant and plain contradictory elements that escape any attempt to identify, govern, and stabilize a given ‘economic arrangement’ or broader ‘economic order’ (Malpas and Wickham 1995;Jessop 2002).

Nonetheless, relatively successful economic imaginaries do have their own, performative, constitutive force in the material world.[6] On the one hand, their operation presupposes a substratum of substantive economic relations and instrumentalities as their elements; on the other, where an imaginary is successfully operationalized and institutionalized, it transforms and naturalizes these elements and instrumentalities into the moments of a specific economy with specific emergent properties. For economic imaginaries identify, privilege, and seek to stabilize some economic activities from the totality of economic relations and transform them into objects of observation, calculation, and governance. Technologies of economic governance, operating sometimes more semiotically, sometimes more materially,[7] constitute their own objects of governance rather than emerging in order to, or operating with the effect that, they govern already pre-constituted objects (Jessop 1990, 1997). Section three illustrates this with a case study of the KBE.

1. The Dialectic between Semiotic and Structural Selectivities

CPE is not only concerned with how texts produce meaning and thereby help to generate social structure but also how such production is constrained by emergent, non-semiotic features of social structure as well as by inherently semiotic factors. Although every social practice is semiotic (insofar as practices entail meaning), no social practice is reducible to semiosis. Semiosis is never a purely intra-semiotic matter without external reference and involves more than the play of differences among networks of signs. It cannot be understood without identifying and exploring the extra-semiotic conditions that make semiosis possible and secure its effectivity – this includes both the overall configuration of specific semiotic action contexts and the complexities of the natural and social world in which any and all semiosis occurs. This is the basis for the concept of the ‘economic imaginary’ outlined above. For not only do economic imaginaries provide a semiotic frame for construing economic ‘events’ but they also help to construct such events and their economic contexts.

The ‘play of difference’ among signifiers could not be sustained without extensive embedding of semiosis in material practice, in the constraints and affordances of the material world. Although individual words or phrases do not have a one-to-one relation to the objects to which they refer, the world does still constrain language and ways of thinking. This occurs over time, if not at every point in time. Not all possible discursive construals can be durably constructed materially and attempts to realize them materially may have unintended effects (Sayer 2000).[8] The relative success or failure of construals depends on how both they and any attempts at construction correspond to the properties of the materials (including social phenomena such as actors and institutions) used to construct social reality. This reinforces my earlier arguments about the dialectic of discursivity and materiality and the importance of both to an adequate account of the reproduction of political economies. It also provides the basis for thinking about semiosis in terms of variation, selection, and retention – since there is far greater scope for random variation in one-off construals than there is in construals that may facilitate enduring constructions. It is to the conditions shaping the selection and retention of construals that we now turn.

Social structuration and, a fortiori, the structuring of capitalist social formations, have three general semiotic aspects. First, semiotic conditions affect the differential reproduction and transformation of social groups, organizations, institutions, and other social phenomena. Second, they also affect the variation, selection and retention of the semiotic features of social phenomena. And, third, semiotic innovation and emergence is a source of variation that feeds into social transformation. In short, semiosis can generate variation, have selective effects, and contribute to the differential retention and/or institutionalization of social phenomena.

Taking for granted the general principles of critical semiotic analysis to focus on broader evolutionary and institutional issues in political economy, we can note that there is constant variation, witting or unwitting, in apparently routine social practices. This poses questions about the regularization of practices in normal conditions and about possible sources of radical transformation, especially in periods of crisis. The latter typically lead to profound cognitive and strategic disorientation of social forces and a corresponding proliferation in discursive interpretations and proposed material solutions. Nonetheless the same basic mechanisms serve to select and consolidate radically new practices and to stabilize routine practices. Simplifying the analysis of evolutionary mechanisms given in Fairclough et al. (2003) and extending it to include material as well as semiotic factors, these mechanisms can be said to comprise:

  1. Selection of particular discourses (the privileging of just some available, including emergent, discourses) for interpreting events, legitimizing actions, and (perhaps self-reflexively) representing social phenomena. Semiotic factors operate here by influencing the resonance of discourses in personal, organizational and institutional, and broader meta-narrative terms and by limiting possible combinations of semiosis and semiotic practices in a given semiotic order. Material factors also operate here through conjunctural or institutionalized power relations, path-dependency, and structurally-inscribed selectivities.
  2. Retention of some resonant discourses (e.g., inclusion in an actor’s habitus, hexis, and personal identity, enactment in organizational routines, integrated into institutional rules, objectification in the built environment, material and intellectual technologies, and articulation into widely accepted accumulation strategies, state projects, or hegemonic visions). The greater the range of sites (horizontally and vertically)[9] in which resonant discourses are retained, the greater is the potential for effective institutionalization and integration into patterns of structured coherence and durable compromise. The constraining influences of complex, reciprocal interdependences will also recursively affect the scope for retaining resonant discourses.
  3. Reinforcement insofar as procedural devices exist that privilege these discourses and their associated practices and also filter out contrary discourses and practices. This can involve both discursive selectivity (e.g., genre chains, styles, identities) and material selectivity (e.g., the privileging of certain dominant sites of discourse in and through structurally-inscribed strategic selectivities of specific organizational and institutional orders). Such mechanisms recursively strengthen appropriate genres, styles, and strategies and selectively eliminate inappropriate alternatives and are most powerful where they operate across many sites in a social formation to promote complementary discourses within the wider social ensemble.
  4. Selective recruitment, inculcation, and retention by relevant social groups, organizations, institutions, etc., of social agents whose predispositions fit maximally with requirements the preceding requirements.

This list emphasizes the role of semiosis and its material supports in securing social reproduction through the selection and retention of mutually supportive discourses. Conversely, the absence or relative weakness of one or more of these semiotic and/or extra-semiotic conditions may undermine previously dominant discourses and/or block the selection and retention of appropriate innovative discourses. This absence or weakness is especially likely in periods of profound disorientation due to rapid social change and/or crises that trigger major semiotic and material innovations in the social world. We should perhaps note here that the semiotic and extra-semiotic space for variation, selection, and retention is contingent, not pre-given. This also holds for the various and varying semiotic and material elements whose selection and retention occurs in this ‘ecological’ space. In a complex world there are many sites and scales on which such evolutionary processes operate and, for present purposes, what matters is how local sites and scales come to be articulated to form more global (general) sites and scales and how the latter in turn frame, constrain, and enable local possibilities (Wickham 1987). These interrelations are themselves shaped by the ongoing interaction between semiotic and extra-semiotic processes. To illustrate these arguments, I now introduce the concept of a ‘semiotic order’ (Fairclough 2003),[10] define the ‘economic imaginary’ as such an order, and exemplify this from the ‘KBE’ case.

A semiotic order is a specific configuration of genres, discourses and styles and, as such, constitutes the semiotic moment of a network of social practices in a given social field, institutional order, or wider social formation.[11] Genres are ways of acting and interacting viewed in their specifically semiotic aspect and, as such, serve to regularize (inter)action. A call-centre script is an example. Discourses represent other social practices (and themselves too) as well as the material world from particular positions in the social world. A case in point would be a particular political discourse, such as the ‘third way’ (New Labour). Styles are ways of being, identities in their specifically semiotic (as opposed to bodily/material) aspect. The ‘new’ managerial style described by Boltanski and Chiapello is one instance (1999). Genres, discourses and styles are dialectically related. Thus discourses may become enacted as genres and inculcated as styles and, in addition, get externalized in a range of objective social and/or material facts (e.g., second nature, physical infrastructure, new technologies, new institutional orders). The ‘KBE’ can be read as a distinctive semiotic order that (re-)articulates various genres, discourses, and styles around a novel economic strategy, state project, and hegemonic vision and that affects diverse institutional orders and the lifeworld.

3. Integrating Critical Semiotic Analysis into Political Economy

I now consider the eventual emergence of the ‘KBE’ as the hegemonic economic imaginary in response to the interlinked crises of the mass production-mass consumption regimes of Atlantic Fordism, the exportist growth strategies of East Asian national developmental states, and the import-substitution industrializing strategies of Latin American nations. What caused these complex, multi-centric, multi-scalar, and multi-temporal crises is not considered here (see Jessop 2002); instead I focus on the trial-and-error search to identify an appropriate response to these crises. A good starting point is Gramsci’s commentary on an analogous period, the crisis of liberalism, in his notes on ‘Americanism and Fordism’ (1971). He indicated that the emergence and consolidation of a new economic regime (mercato determinato) with its own distinctive economic laws or regularities (regolarità) does not occur purely through technological innovation coupled with relevant changes in the labour process, enterprise forms, forms of competition, and other narrowly economic matters. More is required. It also depends critically on institutional innovation intended to reorganize an entire social formation and the exercise of political, intellectual, and moral leadership. One aspect of this is, to use my term, a new ‘economic imaginary’. This enables the re-thinking of social, material, and spatio-temporal relations among economic and extra-economic activities, institutions, and systems and their encompassing civil society. And, to be effective, it must, together with associated state projects and hegemonic visions, be capable of translation into a specific set of material, social, and spatio-temporal fixes that jointly underpin a relative ‘structured coherence’ to support continued accumulation. If this proves impossible, the new project will prove ‘arbitrary, rationalistic, and willed’ rather than ‘organic’ (Gramsci 1971: 376-7).

This approach implies that crisis is never a purely objective process or moment that automatically produces a particular response or outcome. Instead a crisis emerges when established patterns of dealing with structural contradictions, their crisis-tendencies, and dilemmas no longer work as expected and, indeed, when continued reliance thereon may even aggravate the situation. Crises are most acute when crisis-tendencies and tensions accumulate across several interrelated moments of the structure or system in question, limiting room for manoeuvre in regard to any particular problem. Changes in the balance of forces mobilized behind and across different types of struggle also have a key role in intensifying crisis-tendencies and in weakening and/or resisting established modes of crisis-management (Offe 1984: 35-64). This creates a situation of more or less acute crisis, a potential moment of decisive transformation, and an opportunity for decisive intervention. In this sense, a crisis situation is unbalanced: it is objectively overdetermined but subjectively indeterminate (Debray 1973: 113). And this creates the space for determined strategic interventions to significantly redirect the course of events as well as for attempts to ‘muddle through’ in the (perhaps forlorn) hope that the situation will resolve itself in time. In short, crises are potentially path-shaping moments.

Such path-shaping is mediated semiotically as well as materially. Crises encourage semiotic as well as strategic innovation. They often prompt a remarkable proliferation of alternative visions rooted in old and new semiotic systems and semiotic orders. Many of these will invoke, repeat, or re-articulate established genres, discourses, and styles; others may develop, if only partially, a ‘poetry for the future’ that resonates with new potentialities (Marx 1852/1996: 32-34). Which of the proliferating alternatives, if any, is eventually retained and consolidated is mediated in part through discursive struggles to define the nature and significance of the crisis and what might follow from it. If the crisis can be interpreted as a crisis in the existing economic order, then minor reforms and a passive revolution will first be attempted to re-regularize that order. If this fails and/or if the crisis is already interpreted initially as a crisis of the existing economic order, a discursive space is opened to explore more radical changes. In both cases conflicts also concern how the costs of crisis-management get distributed and the best policies to escape from the crisis.

In periods of major social restructuring, diverse economic, political, and socio-cultural narratives may intersect as they seek to give meaning to current problems by construing them in terms of past failures and future possibilities. Different social forces in the private and public domains propose new visions, projects, programmes, and policies and a struggle for hegemony grows. The plausibility of these narratives and their associated strategies and projects depends on their resonance (and hence capacity to reinterpret and mobilize) with the personal (including shared) narratives of significant classes, strata, social categories, or groups affected by the postwar economic and political order. Moreover, although many plausible narratives are possible, their narrators will not be equally effective in conveying their messages and securing support for the lessons they hope to draw. This will depend on the prevailing ‘web of interlocution’[12] and its discursive selectivities, the organization and operation of the mass media, the role of intellectuals in public life, and the structural biases and strategically selective operations of various public and private apparatuses of economic, political, and ideological domination.[13] Such concerns take us well beyond a concern for narrativity and/or the constraints rooted in specific organizational or institutional genres, of course, into the many extra-discursive conditions of narrative appeal and of stable semiotic orders. That these institutional and metanarratives have powerful resonance does not mean that they should be taken at face value. All narratives are selective, appropriate some arguments, and combine them in specific ways. In this sense, then, one must consider what is left unstated or silent, what is repressed or suppressed in official discourse.

Given these general considerations, an effective solution to the search for a meaningful ‘post-Fordist’ macro-economic order in an increasingly integrated world market would involve an ‘economic imaginary’ that satisfies two requirements. First, it can inform and shape economic strategies on all scales from the firm to the wider economy, on all territorial scales from the local through regional to the national or supra-national scale, and with regard to the operation and articulation of market forces and their non-market supports. And, second, it can inform and shape state projects and hegemonic visions on different scales, providing guidance in the face of political and social uncertainty and providing a means to integrate private, institutional, and wider public narratives about past experiences, present difficulties, and future prospects. The more of these fields a new economic imaginary can address, the more resonant and influential it will be.[14] This explains the power of the ‘KBE’ as an increasingly dominant and hegemonic discourse that can frame broader struggles over political, intellectual and moral leadership on various scales as well as over more concrete fields of technical and economic reform (see table 1). The basic idea is being articulated on many scales from local to global, in many organizational and institutional sites from firms to states, in many functional systems, such as education, science, health, welfare, law, and politics, as well as the economy in its narrow sense, and in the public sphere and the lifeworld. It has been translated into many different visions and strategies (e.g., smart machines and expert systems, the creative industries, the increasing centrality of intellectual property, lifelong learning, the information society, or the rise of cybercommunities). And it can be inflected in neo-liberal, neo-corporatist, neo-statist, and neo-communitarian ways – often seeming to function like a Rorschach inkblot to sustain alliances and institutionalized compromises among very disparate interests.

E-2004b CDS-CPE

The KBE seems to have become a master economic narrative in many accumulation strategies, state projects and hegemonic visions and, through the 1990s, it gained a key role in guiding and reinforcing activities aiming to consolidate a relatively stable post-Fordist accumulation regime and corresponding mode of regulation. Given the proliferation of discourses during the emerging crisis in/of Atlantic Fordism, different processes were involved in the greater resonance (hence selection) of certain KBE discourses and subsequent institutionalization (or retention) of relatively coherent economic strategies, political projects, and hegemonic visions oriented to, and organized around, the KBE. For there is many a slip between discursive resonance in a given conjuncture and an eventual, relatively enduring institutional materiality.

Nonetheless, with all due caution about the frailty of predictions during a transition from one long wave of capitalist development to another (Perez 2002), it does seem that the KBE has not only been ‘selected’ from among the many competing discourses about post-Fordist futures but is now being ‘retained’ through a complex and heterogeneous network of practices across diverse systems and scales of action. Whether the KBE also offers a scientifically adequate description of today’s economy in all its chaotic complexity is another matter. But it does correspond in significant ways to the changes in core technologies, labour processes, enterprise forms, modes of competition, and economic ‘identity politics’ that had begun to emerge well before the ‘KBE’ eventually became hegemonic over other accounts of these changes. And it has since gained a crucial role in consolidating them too through its capacity to link different sets of ideal and material interests across a broad range of organizations, institutional orders, functional systems, and the lifeworld and, for this reason, to provide an overall strategic direction to attempts to respond to new threats and opportunities, material disturbances, and a general sense of disorientation in a seemingly ungovernable, runaway world. In short, this is a discursive construal that has good prospects of translation into material reality.

The rise of the KBE as a master narrative is not innocent. While it has material and ideological roots in 1960s debates on post-industrialism, it gained momentum in the 1980s as American capitalists and state managers sought an effective reply to the growing competitiveness of their European and East Asian rivals. Various academic studies, think tank reports, and official inquiries indicated that the US was still competitive in the leading sectors of the ‘KBE’. The latter term was an important discursive innovation in its own right, ‘re-classifying’ goods, services, industries, commodity chains, and forms of competitiveness. This research prompted a concerted campaign to develop the material and ideological basis for a new accumulation strategy based on the deepening and widening of the KBE and the massive extension of intellectual property rights to protect and enlarge the dominance of US capital for the anticipated next long wave. This reflects a neo-liberal policy for productive capital that safeguards US superprofits behind the cloak of free trade in intellectual property and so complements its neo-liberal policy for financial capital. The new strategy was translated into a successful hegemonic campaign (armoured by law and juridical precedents, dissemination of US technical standards and social norms of production and consumption, bilateral trade leverage, diplomatic arm-twisting, and bloody-minded unilateralism) to persuade other states to adopt the KBE agenda. Indeed, the KBE has been warmly embraced as a master narrative and strategy by other leading political forces – ranging from international agencies (notably the OECD and WTO but also the IMF, World Bank, and UNCTAD) through regional economic blocs and intergovernmental arrangements (e.g., EU, APEC, ASEAN, Mercosur, NAFTA) and individual national states with different roles in the global division of labour (e.g., New Zealand, South Korea, Germany, Colombia) down to a wide range of provinces, metropolitan regions, and small cities.

Like Fordism as a master narrative and strategy before it, the ‘KBE’ can be inflected to suit different national and regional traditions and different economic interests. It can also be used to guide economic and political strategies at all levels from the labour process through the accumulation regime and its mode of regulation to an all-embracing mode of societalization. Moreover, once accepted as the master narrative with all its nuances and scope for interpretation, it becomes easier for its neo-liberal variant to shape the development of the emerging global knowledge-based economy through the sheer weight of the US economy as well as through the exercise of economic, political, and intellectual domination.

This said, there is certainly scope for counter-hegemonic versions of the KBE and disputes about how best to promote it. This can be seen in the new international competitiveness benchmarking exercises conducted by the World Economic Forum from 1998 onwards, with the neo-liberal USA and neo-corporatist Finland alternating as number one for four years (see Porter et al., 2000; World Economic Forum 2002).[15] Similarly, at its Lisbon summit in 2000, the European Union aimed to become the leading KBE in the world whilst protecting the European Social Model and developing modes of meta-governance based on social partnership rather than pure market forces (Telò 2002). The space available within the KBE discourse for such disputes helps to reproduce the overall discourse within which they are framed.

4. Concluding Remarks

This article argues for sustained theoretical and empirical engagement between a materially-grounded critical semiotic analysis and an evolutionary and institutional political economy informed by the cultural turn. It is based on my earlier work on state theory and political economy and my critical engagement with Marx’s pre-theoretical discourse analysis[16] and Gramsci’s elaborate philological and materialist studies of hegemony. Others have taken different routes to similar conclusions and have used other labels to describe them. What most distinguishes CPE as presented here from apparently similar approaches are the application of evolutionary theory to semiosis as well as political economy and their resulting mutual transformation.

I conclude with the following remarks. First, insofar as semiosis is studied apart from its extra-semiotic context, resulting accounts of social causation will be incomplete, leading to semiotic reductionism and/or imperialism. And, second, insofar as material transformation is studied apart from its semiotic dimensions and mediations, explanations of stability and change risk oscillating between objective necessity and sheer contingency. To avoid these twin problems, CPE aims to steer a path between ‘soft cultural economics’ and ‘hard orthodox economics’. While the former subsumes economic activities under broad generalizations about social and cultural life (especially their inevitably semiotic character), the latter reifies formal, market-rational, calculative activities and analyzes them apart from their discursive significance and broader extra-economic context and supports. The former tendency is common in economic sociology or claims about the ‘culturalization’ of economic life in the new economy (e.g., Lash and Urry 1994); it also occurs in more discourse-theoretical work, such as work on cultural materialism (Williams 1980; Milner 2002), the linguistic mediation of economic activities (Gal 1989), or economic antagonisms (Laclau and Mouffe 1985). Unfortunately, from my viewpoint, while such currents correctly reject a sharp division between the cultural and material and stress the cultural dimensions of material life, they tend to lose sight of the specificity of different economic forms, contradictions, institutions, contradictions, and so on. The risk here is that one cannot distinguish in material terms between capitalist and non-capitalist economic practices, institutions, and formations – they all become equally discursive and can only be differentiated through their respective semiotic practices, meanings, and contexts and their performative impact. Conversely, ‘hard orthodox economics’ tends to establish a rigid demarcation between the economic and the cultural, reifying economic objects, naturalizing homo economicus, and proposing rigid economic laws. At its most extreme, this leads to universalizing, transhistorical claims valid for all forms of material provisioning; in other cases, it tends to separate economizing activities from their extra-economic supports, to regard the economy as a self-reproducing, self-expanding system with its own laws, and to provide the theoretical underpinnings for economic reductionism.

In offering a ‘third way’, CPE, at least as presented here, emphasizes that capitalism involves a series of specific economic forms (the commodity form, money, wages, prices, property, etc.) associated with generalized commodity production. These forms have their own effects that must be analyzed as such and that therefore shape the selection and retention of competing economic imaginaries. Thus a Marxist CPE would robustly reject the conflation of discourses and material practices and the more general ‘discourse-imperialism’ that has plagued social theory for two decades. It would also provide a powerful means both to critique and to contextualize recent claims about the ‘culturalization’ of economic life in the new economy – seeing these claims as elements within a new economic imaginary with a potentially performative impact as well as a belated (mis)recognition of the semiotic dimensions of all economic activities (for sometimes contrasting views, see Du Gay and Pryke 2002; Ray and Sayer 1999). And, in addition, as many theorists have noted in various contexts (and orthodox Marxists sometimes forget), the reproduction of the basic forms of the capital relation and their particular instantiation in different social formations cannot be secured purely through the objective logic of the market or a domination that operates ‘behind the backs of the producers’. For capital’s laws of motion are doubly tendential and depend on contingent social practices that extend well beyond what is from time to time construed and/or constructed as economic. CPE provides a corrective to these problems too. In part this comes from its emphasis on the constitutive material role of the extra-economic supports of market forces. But it also emphasizes how different economic imaginaries serve to demarcate economic from extra-economic activities, institutions, and orders and, hence, how semiosis is also constitutive in securing the conditions for capital accumulation.



[1] This article derives in part from collaborative work: see Fairclough, Jessop, and Sayer (2003); Jessop and Sum (2000, 2001); and Sum and Jessop (forthcoming). It also benefited from comments by Ryan Conlon, Steven Fuller, Phil Graham, and Jane Mulderrig. The usual disclaimers apply.

[2] On CPE, see Jessop and Sum (2001).

[3] While semiosis initially refers to the inter-subjective production of meaning, it is also an important element/moment of ‘the social’ more generally. Semiosis involves more than (verbal) language, including, for example, different forms of ‘visual language’.

[4] Polanyi (1982) distinguishes (a) substantive economic activities involved in material ‘provisioning’ from (b) formal (profit-oriented, market-mediated) economic activities. The leading economic imaginaries in capitalist societies tend to ignore the full range of substantive economic activities in favour of certain formal economic activities.

[5] I am not suggesting here that mass media can be completely disentangled from the broader networks of social relations in which they operate but seeking to highlight the diminished role of an autonomous public sphere in shaping semiosis.

[6] Indeed, there is no economic imaginary without materiality (Bayart 1994: 20-1).

[7] Although all practices are semiotic and material, the relative causal efficacy of these elements will vary.

[8] On the pre-linguistic and material bases of logic, see Archer (2000).

[9] Horizontal refers here to sites on a similar scale (e.g., personal, organizational, institutional, functional systems) and vertical refers to different scales (e.g., micro-macro, local-regional-national-supranational-global). The use of both terms must be relative and relational.

[10] Semiotic orders are equivalent to ‘orders of discourse’ in Fairclough (1992).

[11] This paragraph draws directly and extensively on Fairclough (2003).

[12]  A web of interlocution comprises metanarratives that reveal linkages between a wide range of interactions, organizations, and institutions and/or help to make sense of whole epochs (Somers 1994: 614).

[13] On discursive selectivity, see Hay 1996 and Somers 1994; on structural selectivity, see Jessop 1990.

[14] My strategic-relational approach is consistent with this claim but also emphasizes that constraints are relative to specific actors, identities, interests, strategies, spatial and temporal horizons, etc. (see Jessop 2002).

[15] Neo-statist Singapore ‘won’ second place in 2003, after the USA, before Finland.

[16] On this, see Graham and Fairclough (2000).


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